Acting Real: Beyond the Contradictions of Authentic Marketing

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on March 9
Find me on:

Act Naturally--Or at Least Don't Act Unnaturally! 

Common marketing wisdom holds that  brand authenticity plays a key role in growing business.  According to Kissmetrics, authenticity brings the following benefits:

  • It elevates your business above the competition
  • It builds your identity and image into something influential
  • It gives substance to your business, services and products
  • It enables people to relate to your business
  • It helps people understand how what you offer is of benefit to them
  • It tells people that what you offer is of high quality
  • It marks you out as a reliable, trustworthy company
  • It encourages engagement and can turn audiences into advocates

Defining authenticity, however, proves a bit more complicated.  

In an artice for the Harvard Business Review, Herminia Ibarra cautions against the problems of "The Authenticity Paradox," warning that while "authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership... a simplistic understanding of what it means can hinder your growth and limit your impact."

Authenticity is, in fact, something of a catch-22: The very effort to come off as “authentic” implies a self-conscious effort to maintain a certain appearance, a performance that cancels out the very effort to authenticity itself.  Once you try to act authentically, you are acting, not simply being authentic.  

The fundamental contradictions of “acting authentically” create a dilemma for marketers who want to discuss the importance of the concept as a marketing strategy. After all, even discussing the importance of authenticity is a surefire route to coming off as inauthentic. Authenticity is like humor: It only works when you don’t try to explain it.  As Jill Byron points out in a recent article for Advertising Age “it's time for an industry-wide paradoxical intervention -- how do we appeal to millennials in a way that feels natural, without disingenuously and overtly claiming to be authentic?”

Don’t Use the A Word!

Byron does not leave us hanging; she offers some very useful tips to help us avoid the contradiction.  Fundamentally, of course, she recommends marketers simply not talk about authenticity: “Ditch authenticity as a brand attribute. Don't say you are authentic -- be authentic. "Straight-talking" and "plugged-in" are both better word choices to personify your brand.”

It’s Really All about Relationships

Byron then follows up with some tips that focus on just being, not talking about being, authentic. For one, she recommends we “Embrace content marketing as a core communications strategy. The value in having real people advocate for brands by inspiring, informing and entertaining audiences across social, content and video is real.”  In other words, good content marketing is already intrinsically authentic.  This is a core value of content marketing that often gets lost in complex discussions regarding the technical work of details like sales funnels, metrics, distribution, and so on.  At the end of the day, content marketing is merely a means to a much higher end: Forming real and meaningful relationships with people. 

 Authenticity Means Allowing Relationships to Develop Organically, at their Own Pace

Byron’s 3rd tip has to do with how we go about developing relationships.  Byron warns against the tendency to “dictate, social conversations and personal stories and videos.”  I read this advice as authenticity through an ethos of “not trying to hard”—advice that speaks to content marketing’s imperative that marketing not push messages on audiences. 

My Own Take Away: Authenticity is Not about How to Act, but How Not To Act:

Perhaps the biggest lesson of the authenticity paradox is that we should not pursue it as a thing, an objective state that some exists in some undefined place that we just keep missing.  Instead, of trying to explain authenticity as a destination or a way of acting, perhaps the best path is to focus  what isn't authentic--as a way not to act.  In fact, I would venture to say that the real challenge of authenticity is that we only notice it in its absence—when we catch ourselves trying to act in a way somehow tailored to meet the presumed (or projected) expectations of others.  After all, despite common admonitions to simply be oneself, identifying that "true" self in any singular way can prove a pretty elusive project.



As Walt Whitman suggested, we "contain multitudes"; any attempt to reduce the self to singular terms will only lead to contradiction; we should consequently embrace our own complex contradictions, not reduce ourselves to singular terms.  This, however, does not mean we need to give up on the ethics of authenticity--after all, Whitman's own claim to willingness to contradict himself only serves as a deeper testament to the poet's sublimely unapologetic capacity to be "himself."  Whitman's authenticity lies in his capacity to reject the cultural traditions would place rules on his sense of how to act.

Instead of viewing authenticity as a set of rules for how to act, authenticity requires saving ourselves from the social pressures that tend to lead to our inauthenticity.

Authenticity as Internal Challenge: Avoiding the tendency for inauthenticity is not easy.  We all feel pressures to conform to certain norms that pull us away from our sense of our “self”—even when that sense of self exists on a more intuitive and not necessarily rational level.  These pressures can easily translate into our work as marketers, where a tradition of advertising can seem to equate effective branding with maintenance of a particular, pre-conceived image. It's precisely this pressure we need to avoid--topic I take up in my next post.

Questions?  Comments?  I'd love to hear them!

Learn More

New Call-to-action


Topics: Creative, Content, Narrative Marketing, Brand, Thought Leadership, B2B Marketing

Recent Posts

Posts by Topic

see all